Is Facebook Targeting Lesbians for the “Hateful Extremism” of Proudly Being Into Women?

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I first saw a lesbian banned from Facebook for using the word dyke shortly after the Seattle Dyke March in 2016. Together with a dozen other lesbians, I helped make matching Lavender Menace t-shirts and huge signs with photos of famous lesbians on them. We were fired up about bringing back 1970s-style, untamed, confrontational lesbian feminism. We wore dyke like a merit badge. After all, it takes a lot of work and courage to be out. Like the Dykes on Bikes and the National Center for Lesbian Rights proved in their 2008 trademark and patents case, when lesbians use this word, it is not pejorative; it is celebratory. With our attendance at Dyke March and in posting pictures of the march on our Facebook timelines, we were saying, why yes, we are those wild homosexual women the straight world is so scared of. Thank you for noticing.

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My friend’s pictures (including ones like that above) were taken down, even though many of the pictures did not have the word dyke in the picture or the caption, but they were uploaded to an album called something like “Dyke March.” She was banned for three days. I was scared, because it meant someone on her friends list was actually not her friend, and was a lesbophobe.

I use Facebook to promote my writing, poetry and activism, and I realized that without it, my platform would shrink considerably. These days, from the moment I wake up until I go to sleep, I am, here and there throughout my day, checking in with my secret/closed lesbian groups. I’m in groups for lesbian political strategizing, lesbian emotional support, shameless discussion of sexuality, lesbian feminist memes, and dyke cruising. The friends I’ve made online are my real friends, and I talk to women from Australia to Canada, to Scotland, to Arkansas, to pretty much the English-speaking world over, on a daily basis. Being a lesbian can feel pretty isolating, but through Facebook, I have met women all over the world, and have ended up meeting many of them in real life, both in my hometown and across borders. Who among my grossly inflated 800+ friends list would anonymously report me?

In June 2017, Pride month no less, I noticed an uptick in women being banned for posting pro-lesbian content including the word dyke. I noticed this happening to very politically involved lesbians, writers and artists as well as completely apolitical lesbians. Facebook has said that all the content which is taken down and subsequent bans issued are based on individual reporting, rather than algorithmic or artificial intelligence monitoring. If this is true, every woman banned has some lesbophobic and vindictive friends on her list. And it also means that the individual people reviewing each report are not clear on the difference between hate speech and slurs, and celebratory language belonging to a group Facebook claims is protected against discrimination for sex, sexuality and gender identity.

In LGBT community, there is a pretty fierce tug-of-war going on between lesbians who are witnessing lesbian erasure, and people who are downplaying and outright denying that this is happening, or that it is politically problematic. The banning of lesbians for the use of terminology that belongs to us, that describes our experience, is erasure and silencing from virtual public space. It should be proof of the phenomenon of lesbian erasure, and it should scare/enrage/call to action all women and all LGBT people.

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To get more information about this topic, I talked to Kate Hansen, a lesbian who was banned and has since become active in spreading the word on social channels and the mainstream media. I also talked to Lisa A. Mallet, who runs the blog Listening 2 Lesbians with her partner Liz Waterhouse (who was repeatedly banned). After our interview, Listening 2 Lesbians was able to interview an anonymous contact at Facebook. A summary of their response is below this interview.

When did this start happening?

Kate: I was banned on June 19th, 2017
Lisa: There have been intermittent deletions/bans mostly since January 2017, but there was a sharp escalation in June 2017.

How did banned women let people know they were banned?

Kate: My mother wrote on my page June 20th that I had been banned
Lisa: Liz started seeing women in her friend group getting banned. She put out a callout on June 22 for women to submit screen caps and stories of being banned for the word “dyke” so we could get a sense of what was going on. Side note: A week after her 1st ban, Liz received a ban for this exact callout. It was used for her 3rd ban. We also reached out to women in groups, threads, anywhere we saw a woman report she had been banned or deleted and we asked for a screen cap, or took one ourselves. Liz was banned a few hours later for another post.

How long do the bans last?

Kate: My ban was supposed to be 30 days, but they let me out yesterday after the globe and mail contacted them.
Lisa: Bans last from 24-hours to 30 days. It is different for everyone. We have reports from 2 women who received additional bans while they were banned, which was very strange. We submitted a PDF to a contact at FB we are working with on this issue on July 5th. It contained 51 pages of screen caps of bans and deletions (including Kate’s). On July 6th women slowly started to get unbanned early and have posts restored. We know our contact has been working through the list over the past few days. We also reported to our contact a sharp increase in bans and deletions again about 8 hours after they first started to restore accounts and posts. One woman who wrote a very benign “I’m back” post had that deleted as well for the word “dyke” even though it was pro-lesbian. We told our contact this as well, but the reasoning for all the deletions we were given was typical FB manual BS. We will be pressing our contact for more during the interview in a couple of days.

Getty Images

Getty Images

Has there been any ban on words like queer?

Kate: The word queer was not banned in my experience. Just the word dyke, and only in reference to actual women.
Lisa: Not “queer” that we know of, but we have received word that “fag/faggot” has earned a deletion. We do not know the extent. Also, in my research there have been discussions on this happening with “n*gga/n*ggers”. The Slants have also been dealing with this and have been involved in a court case to be able to use their name. They have posted Listening 2 Lesbians’ petition on their FB page in solidarity with us. You may want to check out their situation as well. I believe Dykes on Bikes USA has helped them with their case, since they are similar. There are articles out there on it. I think we posted one a while back.

We know bans are coming from reporting. Can you talk more about the evidence for AI scanning and banning posts/links?

Kate: In this incidence the post I was banned for was something I said in a private group, so I think it’s likely AI.
Lisa: FB continues to insist that all banned and deleted posts are from reporting, but we and other journalists have reported that FB is using a new AI program as part of their Online Civil Courage Initiative, which they revealed they are using in a Hard Questions Press Release on June 15th. The history of this program and links to available resources can be found here.
You will also find a breakdown of the hate speech algorithm FB uses in its AI and for its content reviewers, as well as how it relates to the use of “dyke” here.

Why do you think there’s less of a trend of banning gay men’s content?

Kate: I definitely think women are singled out and punished more than men are. For breast feeding as well. I do think women are targeted.
Lisa: We do see a ban on gay men’s content (as stated above), but we have no idea the extent. From mine and Liz’s perspectives, we just aren’t as involved in that community on FB. What we do know is that gay men are signing the petition and sighting their own bans and deletions as the reason. You can read through the comments section for that. That being said, FB has a consistent and persistent history of misogyny. They are definitely regulating what women say more than men. Frankly, they are regulating minorities in general. But the fact that threats of violence against women and graphic sexual imagery of women are left untouched, while lesbian language and talk of female biology are regulated, says a lot about the climate at FB. This article gives some good info and demographics at FB.

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I’ve seen the Facebook community standards that say sex is a protected category, and so you’d think hate speech against women would violate those standards. However, I’ve personally reported posts that were about fucking b*tches and sl*ts or intentionally degrading “wh*res,” or glorifying prostitution, rape and violent murder of women, and they were not taken down. Why do you think people get away with posting stuff like that? Is it because sl*t/wh*re are not considered slurs in the same way dyke is? (in what universe could anyone think that, but for the purposes of identifying in what way something is violent/hate speech, do you think those words hold a different weight in cultural context?)

Kate: I think we live in a rape culture. I think men get away with a lot more foul language than women do. I actually think in this instance lesbians were unfairly targeted. I don’t care that my account was reinstated, I want Facebook to own up to their discrepancies.
Lisa: According to Facebook algorithms, sex and sexual orientation are both protected categories, so yes, you would think lesbians would be protected. I even try to break down the hate speech algorithm using posts that were deleted and it’s plainly obvious that it’s not being used properly. But remember that the way Facebook does it’s algorithm leaves so many vulnerable people unprotected. In the case of a prostitute, they would say that a female is a protected category, but the category of prostitute is not, so female prostitute is an unprotected category. It’s absolutely crazy. That’s just one side of the picture though. Facebook has roughly 7500 content reviewers now and they are in places and a part of cultures that are extremely misogynistic, including the US. In our Hard Questions response to FB,  we ask them “If you find that an individual employee, or group of employees, has been abusing their position at Facebook to target and silence lesbians and other women they do not agree with, will Facebook tell the communities affected and issue a public apology?” not because we think they will ever try to determine if there are a bunch of misogynists on their Community Operations Team, but because we want them to know that we see what it going on.

“In our Hard Questions response to FB,  we ask them “If you find that an individual employee, or group of employees, has been abusing their position at Facebook to target and silence lesbians and other women they do not agree with, will Facebook tell the communities affected and issue a public apology?” not because we think they will ever try to determine if there are a bunch of misogynists on their Community Operations Team, but because we want them to know that we see what it going on.”

We demand again in our petition to FB, “We are also calling on Facebook to do an investigation into the practices of their Community Operations Team, the content reviewers responsible for answering reports, scanning user posts, and carrying out bans and deletions. We demand that Facebook determine if any of their employees responsible for judging user content are showing a bias against women and lesbians. We call on Facebook to terminate the employment of any individual that has intentionally targeted women and lesbians for their beliefs and/or because they hate women and lesbians. We believe this investigation should also be conducted with regards to other minority groups as well.” Again, we want them to know that we see through them. FB also just announced, I want to say last week (?) that they are starting a new program to combat violence against women on FB. I find it hard to believe that this is anything but lip service and I fear that this will also backfire on the lesbian community.

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